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Using science-based strategies for successful willpower

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | July 24, 2012

The password to my diet website used to be “willpower.” This was actually an inside joke of sorts, meant to remind me of the following sentences:

“Willpower is often construed as a stoic self-denial in the service of a distant goal, a capacity to deliberately endure and suffer while “biting the bullet.” But a less heroic approach seems to characterize successful goal-directed delay and effective realization of the what one values.”

This sentence comes from a chapter that I co-authored with Walter Mischel some years ago (Mischel & Mendoza-Denton, 2003). Mischel is the scientist who devised with what is widely referred to as “the marshmallow test.” This test was popularized by Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence, and hilariously picked up by Colbert here:

The marshmallow test is simple: a child is given a choice between having one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later. Most kids choose to have two marshmallows later, at which point they are left alone somewhere between 15 and 25 minutes (depending on age) with the tempting snack in front of them. Part of the power of this marshmallow test lies in the fact that the number of seconds that the child is able to wait at age 5 is predictive of a host of important life outcomes in adulthood, including SAT scores, lower BMI, and higher coping ability . As a graduate student, it was a privilege for me to train under one the pre-eminent researchers on self-control.

I have carried the lessons I learned in Mischel’s lab into other domains, including the regulation of negative emotions when coping with discrimination, as well as the regulation of eating (see, e.g, this blog and this blog).

Now, in my last blog on weight control (On prejudice against fat people), I highlighted a recent analysis by Gary Taubes, who suggests that while we often tend to attribute fatness as a moral failure, the insulin dysregulation associated with fatness actually makes people feel like they are starving, which helps explains the constant cravings associated with overweight.

One of the comments to that post came from Marvin, who was quite offended. He wrote:

“Are you so born in to political correctness that you are unable to see that 2 + 2 does in fact equal 4? … People are responsible for their weight – and to pretend otherwise is verging on medical negligence, let alone an outright lie.”

Hyperbolics aside, one of the assumptions that Marvin’s comment implies is that if there is some type of external influence on eating behavior (such as insulin dysregulation), then this must mean I am denying a role for self-control. In this way, it’s similar to the “biting the bullet” view that I referred to earlier: f one is exercising virtuous, stoic self-denial, there should be no environmental or contextual influence i

But science by my mentor Walter Mischel shows that this is far from true.

Let’s go back to the marshmallow test for a moment. Yes, seconds of delay in early age are highly predictive of adjustment in adulthood, so there are clearly individual differences. But this doesn’t mean that context doesn’t matter. In one study, Mischel and Ebbesen (1970) had some kids wait for the preferred reward (the two marshmallows) with the marshmallows in full view, while other kids waited with the treats out of sight. With the rewards out of sight, the children were able to wait 11 minutes, and with the rewards exposed… one minute.

In another study, Mischel and Baker (1975) showed that simply telling the children to mentally reframe the reward had significant effects. Some children, for example, would be told to think of how yummy and chewy the marshmallows were, while others would be told to think of the marshmallows as puffy clouds (in a variation with pretzels, kids would be told to think of either the salty, crunchy taste of the pretzels or to think about how they looked like little play logs). When the children were refocused to think about the rewards in “cool” terms rather than their “hot,” consummatory qualities, the children were able to increase their waiting time almost threefold (from 5.6 to 13.1 minutes).

So is this self-control by the chlldren? Of course it is— but what these experiments did was to provide the children with the appropriate physical and mental strategies to maximize self-regulation. Far from being an exercise in stoic control, these strategies allowed the kids to delay gratification by changing the mental representation of the rewards. You can see children spontaneously engaging in these strategies in this video:

So, was I implying in my last blog that weight control does not require self-regulation? No. What I am saying, though, is much like what David Kessler argues in his book “The End of Overeating,” Namely: for many people who suffer from being fat, the world of food is like being in the experimental conditions where the yummy rewards are constantly exposed, and the yummy, crunchy, salty, sweet sensations are emphasized as we walk down supermarket aisles. And the food industry has become quite skilled at knowing what triggers our “hot, consummatory” responses. The point that Gary Taubes makes in “Why We Get Fat” is that many of the food items (particularly processed foods) available to us in the supermarket induce an insulin response that not only makes us fat, but keeps us starved for energy. And it is all the more difficult to exercise willpower when one is starved.

Taubes actually lumps psychologists along with all the other bad guys who profit from making fatness a moral issue— an issue of stoic self-control. He claims that controlling insulin spikes is all that’s needed, since satiety will be achieved. However, there is still room for self-control— many people still need to learn to forego many of the comfort snacks and foods that trigger this insulin response in the first place. This is why the password to my diet website was “willpower”- not to remind myself that I had to be stoic and virtuous, but that what I had to do was change the mental representation of foods I don’t want to eat.

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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved.

Comments to “Using science-based strategies for successful willpower

  1. I always find your blog posts interesting and useful. I’d be interested in your opinion of Dr. Judith Beck’s use of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) techniques for weight loss. It seems to be a variation of the marshmallow test in that it attempts to distract the user from feelings (of starvation) and to refocus attention on future rewards.

    • hi Anne, I’m not familiar with this particular technique, but yes, in terms of reframing, it sounds like it’s in the general ballpark– particularly the part about focusing attention on future rewards. That said, though, it’s hard to ignore extreme hunger, which is where Taubes’s argument comes in re: the role of carbohydrates in sustaining hunger. I’ll be posting more on attention and self-regulation, I hope…. rmd

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